Op-Ed from Rep. Pete Petersen: School funding should be inflation-adjusted

As students go back to school, it is a good time to reflect on what we expect from our education system and how to meet those expectations. As technology, globalization and a changing economy create new challenges and opportunities for Alaskans, it is important that our schools provide all students with the education they need to succeed in the 21st century world.

The biggest advances in education happen in classrooms with talented teachers engaging their students and at home with involved parents helping further their children's education. But legislators have a role too; our job is to give schools the support they need to provide a top quality education to Alaska students.

One simple way the Legislature can do a better job helping our schools is to ensure that inflation doesn't eat away at our children's opportunities one year to the next. Just throwing more money around isn't the answer, but neither is standing by quietly as Alaska students pay the price for global economics beyond their control. We cannot demand better results from schools and teachers if we give them less and less to work with one school year to the next.

Inflation happens every year, and that means that every year it costs slightly more for schools to provide the same education to our children. A successful initiative one year won't be so successful the next if more and more of the resources that support it have to go to just keeping the lights on. This year, a one-time state grant to help cover rising energy costs saved the Anchorage School District from having to lay off teachers. While this grant helped this year, if the Legislature doesn't take more comprehensive action, school districts will face the same problem next year and every year after that.

When state funding fails to keep pace with inflation, schools are forced to either cut educational opportunities or make up the difference from local taxpayers who are already paying plenty of taxes. Instead of being able to focus on innovation or successful efforts, schools spend time worrying about how many pink slips they'll have to send out at the end of the year. The Alaska Constitution requires that the state "establish and maintain" our public schools, not dump that responsibility on local taxpayers.

Last year, I introduced House Bill 143 which would adjust school funding for inflation every year for the next three years so we don't fall farther behind. To make sure schools are responsible for spending that money wisely, my bill would also require the Department of Education and Early Development to conduct a comprehensive study on the true cost of public education in every district in the state. This study would help provide accountability in local education spending and give the Legislature and school districts useful information to improve long term education planning.

Parents, students, and lawmakers are right to expect better results from our schools. While significant improvement has been made in the dropout rate, we should work to see that all our students graduate from high school ready to excel in the workforce or the next level of education.

Making sure that state school funding keeps pace with inflation is the least we can do. Increasing the graduation rate and improving educational opportunities for Alaskans will take even more hard work and creative ideas from parents, teachers, and policymakers. I certainly don't claim to have all the answers, but I do know that continuing to make our children pay for the costs inflation doesn't help.

I will continue to work to improve Alaska's neighborhood schools, and to ensure that all of our students get the education they need to succeed in the local and global job markets and to excel in whatever they do. Making sure that state school funding keeps pace with inflation is one simple step the Legislature should take to help Alaska's schools better serve Alaska's students.

Read it at the Anchorage Daily News: http://www.adn.com/2011/08/24/2030427/school-funding-should-be-inflation.html